By Lyonel Doherty

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After witnessing the wildfire devastation in BC this year, a veteran rancher in the Columbia Valley is urging a renewed focus on utilizing cattle as natural firefighters.

Franz Feldmann, chair of the Windermere Valley Rural Range Patrol, believes this resource is part of the solution to manage the damaging impacts of wildfire.

A rancher for more than 60 years, Feldmann enjoys the fact it’s a tradition in his family, with his son, daughter and granddaughter in the business full time. Other family members also help out throughout the year.

Feldmann points to areas such as Toby Benches that used to have approximately 400 head of cattle grazing there. But not anymore, which he fears is a hazard to local infrastructure and homes.

“If those cows keep the grass down, there is way less chance for fire to get started,” he says, noting these bovines keep the tall, dry grass to a safe level.

He recalls (in 1985) a large wildfire south of Invermere where cattle used to graze, but they were subsequently moved off the land. A campfire reportedly spread to tall grass and burned all the way to K2 ranch, he points out.

Feldmann also remembers another fire (in 1991) by Toby Benches that jumped Horsethief Canyon and came within 1.5 kilometres of his ranch.

With increasing recreational pressure in the Steamboat range unit, Feldmann and his range patrol members have to remain vigilant for campfires. One year they spotted 34 campfires on a long weekend.

The BC Cattlemen’s Association is a strong supporter of using cows as lawnmowers to keep the wildfire hazard in check. It uses targeted grazing to manage fires and bring them under control when they start. 

It is reported that more than 160 million tons of carbon was released into the atmosphere during the 2017 wildfire season in BC, and from 2017 to 2018, more land was burned by wildfire than the last 25 years combined. But 2023 is being touted as the worst fire season in Canada’s history.

Four years ago the BC government provided $500,000 to the BC Cattlemen’s Association to use grazing livestock to manage fine fuels in the province. Since then the ranching sector, local governments and Indigenous communities have developed partnerships to conduct pilot projects to see the job done.

Then Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham said reducing the risk of wildfires and adapting to a changing climate requires more action than the status quo of the last 20 years.

While targeted grazing is not the whole solution, it is seen as a powerful tool when used in combination with other methods, such as prescribed burning and selective tree harvesting.

Kevin Boon, general manager of the BC Cattlemen’s Association, said fire seasons have shown them the value of cattle grazing in mitigating the start or spread of fires.